Do employees work only for their own benefit?

The latest ABS data on ‘working time arrangements’ received a tendentious report yesterday in the SMH:

ALMOST a third of Australian employees work unsocial hours – between 7pm and 7am – and even more complain they have no say about when they start or finish. ….Thirty per cent said their shifts regularly overlapped the hours between 7pm and 7am as part of their main job. Three in five said they had no say about when they started or finished.

As for weekends, 16 per cent said they were required to work on Saturdays, and 8.5 per cent on Sundays. One in four were not always allowed to choose when to take their holidays. (emphasis added)

Note the SMH interpretations I bolded. Working after 7pm isn’t necessarily ‘unsocial’ – a lot of people like their colleagues. The ABS report doesn’t anywhere suggest that people were complaining about having no say about when they start or finish; that simply goes with many jobs where predictable opening or operational times are necessary. The ABS doesn’t say that 16% of people are ‘required’ to work Saturdays; it just says that 16% do work Saturdays. As I noted earlier in the month, weekends and evenings are the only time some people with other commitments can work. And workers in particular industries can’t take holidays whenever they choose for good reasons, eg school teachers can’t take holidays during term.

What’s missing in this reporting is the sense that an employment arrangement is one of mutual advantage between employer and employee to provide goods and services from which other people benefit – rather than just something to benefit the employee, regardless of its effects on others.

But John Buchanan is having none of this:

“It is not just family life, but community life that is being compromised,” said the director of the Workplace Research Centre at Sydney University, John Buchanan. “It just rips the heart out of the football team.”

Can’t we put together a footy team out of the 84% of people who have Saturday off work (not to mention those who don’t have jobs at all)?

Lefties love hyperbole and melodrama, so no surprises that some people working outside 9 to 5 Monday to Friday is converted into ‘compromised’ family and community life and undermanned footy teams. What is surprising is the worldview implicit in this critique, one that shows a remarkable resemblance to the 1950s family life once so derided by the left. The idea that 9 to 5 Monday to Friday can be the norm assumes that there is someone at home generating services – doing the shopping, preparing food etc. Almost invariably, that was women. Once they were at work an expanded service sector that provided these services out of hours was near-inevitable, despite the efforts of many conservatives to stop it happening.

It’s no wonder that Menzies is invoked so regularly on the left these days. Some of them view that era with strange nostalgia.

54 thoughts on “Do employees work only for their own benefit?

  1. backroom girl wrote:
    “good in buoyant times but a bugger in a recession.”

    David – I think you are right about that, but I always thought that one of the main arguments in favour of genuinely flexible employment arrangements were that they could adjust down along with the economy

    Yes – sharing the costs amongst the employed but leaving the employer untouched. It’s at this point the argument gets all ideological (how far do you let people get into poverty while claiming that any work is better than the dole?). I’m not sure why employers are seen as inherently more virtuous than their employees and therefore should be insulated as far as possible from recessions. I don’t agree with the idea, and it’s why minimum wages and social security are valuable (to me at least).

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  2. David

    “Yes – sharing the costs amongst the employed but leaving the employer untouched. It’s at this point the argument gets all ideological (how far do you let people get into poverty while claiming that any work is better than the dole?).”

    The worth of work to humans and income support are separate issues really. It is good for people to be productively engaged, as this ameliorates potential social problems. The question of income support is thus irrelevant in terms of “is any job better than the dole”. We as a society should work out what is a basic minimum income and use the most efficient means to determine how those with insufficient income receive it.

    And, btw, going surfing everyday doesn’t count as productive engagement- if you want that you’ll have to fund it yourself.

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  3. In the end, it’s about a balance between supply and demand, though, isn’t it, and during a recession it stands to reason that the equilibrium will be at a different point than during good economic times.

    I am being a bit of a devil’s advocate here, lest you think I’m a RWDB in disguise, but presumably employers suffer along with everyone else during a recession. Presumably they don’t lay people off simply for their own sake, but because they can no longer afford to employ as many people. (Which is where this discussion started – so we’ve managed to neatly bring it full circle.)

    I also agree with you that the social security system is very important (not least to ensure an adequate standard of living in households with low earnings from employment). And while I can understand the argument for getting rid of the minimum wage (and see nothing wrong in principle with letting the social security system take more of the load), I also understand the important political role that the minimum wage has played in Australia historically and personally doubt that any government would ever be able to allow the minimum wage to fall significantly, let alone get rid of it entirely.

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  4. “how far do you let people get into poverty while claiming that any work is better than the dole?”

    “We as a society should work out what is a basic minimum income and use the most efficient means to determine how those with insufficient income receive it.”

    I would argue that we have already largely done that. We already have a social security system that means that virtually any work is better than the dole, because you can work and receive an income top-up from the dole, if your income is low enough. So you’ll always be better off financially (though not all that much) and if you are getting some satisfaction from working and from supporting yourself you should be better off psychologically as well.

    And jimmy, don’t bring up the surfing topic, before you know it we’ll be arguing about why we don’t adequately remunerate amateur sportspeople and budding artists and other kinds of people who think that life is all about doing what you want, rather than what you need to do 🙂

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